The horror of ancient mining

Mining was the most dangerous occupation in antiquity... to be a miner in antiquity was to be a doomed man...

Consider the hazards recounted by our ancient sources: subterranean galleries largely without artificial reinforcement; tunnels so low that miners often worked in a supine position, unless of course they were small boys; galleries beneath the water table, subject to flooding; noxious fumes from the earth; intermittent ventilation through air shafts from the surface; fires lit in the galleries to heat the rock faces, the scalding steam created when cold water was thrown on the heated face to crack it, and the shards of stone that exploded from the face; and the application of acid to the cracks, to split them further. Trauma, asphyxiation, poisoning, burns, drowning. Little wonder that life expectancy for miners was less than a year; and little wonder, too, that no free man would be willing to assume this occupation...

- from Ancient Technology by John W. Humphrey (Greenwood Press, 2006) pages 108 and 181

Probably the earliest surviving written account of gold mining in Egypt appears in The Historical Library by Diodorus Siculus, who flourished in the first century B.C., which we now quote. The horrific abuse of the mining slaves is highlighted by the bold-set text.


Book III Section 12.1 ff.
(As translated by George Booth in 1814)

...it is fit first that we say something of the making of gold in these parts.

In the confines of Egypt, and the neighbouring countries of Arabia and Ethiopia, there is a place full of rich gold mines, out of which, with much cost and pains of many labourers, gold is dug. The soil here naturally is black, but in the body of the earth run many white veins, shining with white marble, and glistering with all sorts of other bright metals; out of which laborious mines those appointed overseers cause the gold to be dug up by the labour of a vast multitude of people. For the kings of Egypt condemn to these mines notorious criminals, captives taken in war, persons sometimes falsely accused, or such against whom the king is incensed; and that not only they themselves, but sometimes all their kindred and relations together with them, are sent to work here, both to punish them, and by their labour to advance the profit and gain of the king. There are infinite numbers upon these accounts thrust down into these mines, all bound in fetters, where they work continually, without being admitted any rest night or day, and so strictly guarded, that there is no possibility or way left to make an escape. For they set over them barbarians, soldiers of various and strange languages, so that it is not possible to corrupt any of the guard, by discoursing one with another, or by the gaining insinuations of a familiar converse.

The earth which is hardest and full of gold they soften by putting fire under it, and then work it out with their hands: the rocks thus softened, and made more pliant and yielding, several thousands of profligate wretches break it in pieces with hammers and pickaxes. There is one artist that is the overseer of the whole work, who marks out the stone, and shews the labourers the way and manner how he would have it done. Those that are the strongest amongst them that are appointed to this slavery, provided with sharp iron pickaxes, cleave the marble-shining rock by mere force and strength, and not by art or slight of hand. They undermine not the rock in a direct line, but follow the bright shining vein of the mine.

They carry lamps fastened to their foreheads to give them light, being otherways in perfect darkness in the various windings and turnings wrought in the mine; and having their bodies appearing sometimes of one colour and sometimes of another (according to the nature of the mine where they work) they throw the lumps and pieces of the stone cut out of the rock upon the floor. And thus they are employed continually, without intermission, at the very nod of the overseer or tax-master, who lashes them severely besides. And there are little boys that attend upon the labourers in the mine, and with great labour and toil gather up the lumps and pieces hewed out of the rock as they are cast upon the ground, and carry them forth and lay them upon the bank. Those that are about thirty years of age take a piece of the rock of such a certain quantity, and pound it in a stone mortar with iron pestles till it be as small as a vetch, then those little stones so pounded are taken from them by women and older men, who cast them into mills that stand together there near at hand in a long row, and, two or three of them being employed at one mill, they grind it so long till it be as small as fine meal, according to the pattern given them. No care at all is taken of the bodies of these poor creatures, so that they have not a rag so much as to cover their nakedness, and no man that sees them can choose but must commiserate their sad and deplorable condition. For though they are sick, maimed, or lame, no rest, no intermission in the least, is allowed them: neither the weakness of old age, nor women's infirmities, are any plea to excuse them; but all are driven to their work with blows and cudgelling, till at length, overborn with the intollerable weight of their misery, they drop down dead in the midst of their insufferable labours; so that these miserable creatures always expect worse to come than that which they then at present endure, and therefore long for death, as far more desirable than life.

At length the masters of the work take the stone thus ground to powder, and carry it away in order to the perfecting of it. Tiiey spread the mineral so ground upon a broad board, somewhat hollow and lying shelving, and, pouring water upon it, rub it and cleanse it, and so all the earthy and drossy part being separated from the rest by the water, it runs off the board, and the gold, by reason of its weight, remains behind. Then washing it several times again, they first rub it lightly with their hands; afterwards they draw up the earthy and drossy matter with slender spunges gently applied to the powdered dust, till it be clean pure gold. At last other workmen take it away by weight and measure, and these put it into earthen urns, and, according to the quantity of the gold in every urn, thry mix with it some lead, grains of salt, a little tin, and barley bran. Then covering every pot close, and carefully daubing them over with clay, they put them in a furnace, where they abide five days and nights together; then, after they have stood to cool a convenient time, nothing of the other matter is to be found in the pots, but only pure refined gold, some little thing diminished in the weight.

And thus is gold prepared in the borders of Egypt, and perfected and completed with so many and so great toils and vexations. And therefore I cannot but conclude that nature itself teaches us, that as gold is got with labour and toil, so it is kept with difficulty, creates every where the greatest cares, and the use of it mixed both with pleasure and sorrow.

Yet the invention of those metals is very antient, being found out and made use of by the antient kings.